27 February 2011

To See With the Eyes of Love

Matthew 5: 38-48 
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 20th February 2011

What do we do with a text like this? These are demanding words from Jesus—perhaps the most challenging and radical statements in the Sermon on the Mount.   You know them well.  Go the extra mile.  Turn the other cheek.  Do not resist the evildoer.  Love your neighbor—including your enemy.  Be perfect.   Be perfect?  One has to be perfect just to live up to Jesus’ expectations.  Are they even realistic?  

What do we do with texts like these?  We can ignore them, of course (not recommended).  We can try to ethically strive to live up to this standard, knowing in advance we will probably fail (miserably). But they’re still worthy of our emulation.

I wonder if there isn’t another option, one that has less to do with human striving and more to with increasing our capacity to live from within the love of God, like Jesus himself.  
 These verses are part of the Great Anti-thesis sayings of Jesus.  Here, Jesus begins with a quote from the ancient Hammurabi Code, the Babylonian law code that dates back to 1700 BC, “You have heard that it was said,’ An eye for an eye.”   This was the ancient code of justice.  A similar ethic is found in the Jewish Law, as well as Islam.  To take another’s eye, requires an appropriate compensation.  To be wronged by another means the scales of justice, equally weighed when justice is served, become weighted.  Justice “righted” entailed correcting the imbalance.  If you steal my cow, I get to steel your cow—and then we’re even.  Punch me in the face, I get to punch you in the face—then we’ll be even.  Justice then, and for many still, means little more than getting even for an offense.  This understanding is reflected in our legal language today. We speak of lex talionis; talion meaning offense.  We often hear that punishment has to equal the crime in order for justice to be served.  This might be the way the world operates, but we’re not called to be of the world—in the world, but not of it.   In the world, with a different ethic, a different outlook, a different approach, a different way, a different truth, a different life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) said, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” 

            Jesus says, “But I say to you…” The Great-Antithesis.  The contrary view of the gospel.  The contravening of grace that provides a “still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 13).  And so we have these illustrations —do not resist the evildoer.  If someone strikes your right cheek, offer the left; if someone wants to sue the shirt off your back, give him your coat as well; go the extra mile.  Give to everyone who begs for you; lend, lend, lend.    Now these statements are not what they appear to be.  Throughout the history of Christianity, they’ve been taken literally and have inflicted considerable damage, if not abuse.  Some have said that Jesus expects his followers to be passive, to be doormats, suffering through hurt and injustice, never fighting back.  These verses have been thrown at women, in particular, by men who expect subservience.  Actually, Jesus is not calling for subservience here or passivity. They’re actually far more active and engaging than we might think. We could dwell on these verses alone, but the lectionary calls us on to the rest of the chapter.

            Similarly, Jesus says, “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  Now, the Old Testament never says, “hate your enemy.”  It does say something about loving your neighbor, which then led to the question – but who is my neighbor?  The logic went something like this.  Yes, Torah, the Laws tells me I am to love my neighbor. But if I determine who is not my neighbor—if I define the limits of what constitutes “neighbor,” then that person is my enemy and I’ll be free to hate him or her, without violating the Jewish Law because he is, by definition, not my neighbor.  Sure, I can love my neighbor.  But those filthy Samaritans and those godless Gentiles, the Law does not apply to them because they’re not my neighbors, so I can hate them.  Do you see their logic? 

            Jesus says, “But I say to you…”  Here again, an anti-thesis, the gospel as contrary, the contravening of grace that sets the follower of Jesus off in an entirely different direction, with a different way, a different outlook, with a different logic, the unsettling logic of love. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus turns the Law on its head.  He undermines the prevailing false logic of love reserved only for “neighbors.” Grace contravenes—breaks, flouts, disobeys, and even violates the normal way of doing things.  Love your enemies—not just accept them, not just put up with them, not just tolerate them, but to love them.  And even—to go an extra mile—pray for the very one who persecutes you. 

            Why does Jesus set the standard so high, so difficult?  It’s tough to say, of course, but if the text is the clue it just might have to do with the nature of love itself.  We must remember as we hear the Sermon on the Mount, as we receive Jesus’ teaching here, that his teaching is always connected to his identity as the Son of God.  What he encourages and models for us is an expression, an extension of who he is, and when we see Jesus, we see right to the depths of the very heart of God.   So that when Jesus calls us to love our enemies, he’s inviting us to see that this is the exactly the way God is toward us, pure love.  If we are really children of God, then be children of God and act the way God does.  This is the way God relates to all of us, who are, it must be acknowledged at various times in our lives, enemies of God—enemies, in that we reject God’s will, that we do not work for the vision of the kingdom, that we hinder the mission of God, that we fail to love our neighbor and ourselves and even God.  In this sense we are “enemies” of God’s intentions for the world.  There are even times when God and the church are persecuted by forces, ideas, attitudes that also undermine God’s intentions for the world.  

            And how does God act?  “For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the righteous.”   God’s love does not discriminate.   God’s love is poured out on all—whether they know it or not, whether they believe in God or not.  If you only love those who love you, there’s nothing noble or even God-like in that—you’re no better than  tax collectors (who weren’t thought of kindly in Jesus’ day, particularly when the Roman Empire was overburdening them with taxes).    If you only love people like you, in your family, in your tribe, in your town, who share your ideas and perspectives and faith, there’s nothing noble or even God-like in that.  Even the Gentiles—who didn’t have the reputation among the Jews for being the most ethical people in the world—do a far better job. 

            Then Jesus throws out a line that causes even more anxiety than the command to love one’s enemy and to turn the other cheek:  be perfect.  This command, too, is often misunderstood.  It does not mean be morally perfect.  It does not mean be always right.  It doesn’t mean never make a mistake.   It doesn’t mean we always have to get an A+ on moral purity.  These are all moralistic readings of this text that probably say more about our assumptions about the life of faith, than about the text.  These are all misreadings of the text.  I really wish the translators of the NRSV (the best translation by-far, the version we have in the pews), offered a better translation here. The New International Version renders it a little better, because it does not use the word “perfect,”  “But you must always act like your Father in heaven.”   But it misses the meaning of the Greek word that is poorly translated into English as “perfect.”  It’s the Greek word, teleos—meaning end or purpose.  In other words, fulfill your purpose, your end, the reason you exist, just as your heavenly Father acts from within God’s purpose, end, from out of his core identity – which is love.   Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message does a better job capturing what’s behind the Greek.  Peterson translates 5:48 this way:   "In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

            That’s the point:  the way God lives toward you—in love—is the way God calls us to live toward others, even our enemies.  By love we don’t mean romantic love, neither is it a kind of passive acceptance, it’s not a sentimental feeling toward someone one.  God’s love is not preference.  Love is more than preference, to prefer one over the other.  That’s not love either. Love is not a synonym for “like”—Jesus didn’t say, like your enemies, but to love them.  God doesn’t just like us, but loves us. 

            This love is strong.  It is powerful.  As the Mexican priest says in Graham Greene’s (1904-1991) novel, The Power and the Glory, God’s love is often unrecognizable, “it might even look like hate, it would be enough to scare us—God’s love.  It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark.”[1]  It’s unsettling.  It’s disturbing.  It’s not what we expect.

            It’s a love that calls people to life and speaks into death itself and forces it to yield life, to yield resurrection. Everyone is worthy of being an object of this love, including our enemies.  Perhaps through the eyes of love we might even come to see the enemy is not an enemy at all.  Maybe the one we considered an enemy is someone else altogether. Perhaps when we see the world through the eyes of love, with something of the way God looks out at each of us and the world through the “eyes” of love, then what we’re looking at comes into focus.  We might discover the enemy is not an enemy—and while maybe not yet a friend—he or she is at least a person, a human being suffering and hungering for life as much as the rest of us.

            It was James Loder (1931-2001), one of my professors at Princeton Seminary and one of the wisest persons I’ve ever known, who showed me what love looks like.  He put it this way.  Love is “the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.”[2]   Love sees the other and does not confuse itself with the other.  Love allows the other to exist in freedom and creates a space for the other to be.  Love does not try to possess the other, control, define or delimit the other.  Love transforms the other from an it (an object to be controlled) into a thou (a subject who is honored, worthy of respect).  Love allows the other to be, to exist apart from oneself, to have a life apart from oneself, and takes immense delight and joy in the particularity, the uniqueness, the incomparability of the other.[3]  To be on the receiving end of such a love as someone else’s other—to be seen as another’s thou—we are brought to life and allowed to thrive.  To see that this is the way God loves us, as the thou of God, we are brought to life and allowed to thrive.   Love “earnestly desires the fulfillment of the unique particularity of the other one.”[4]  This is what we experience when we’re in relationship with God and from this  dynamic, the vitality of this relationship we turn out toward the people we meet, our enemies, our friends, strangers, whoever stands with us under the rain shower of God’s grace.

Love, if it is love, cannot be an ethical duty; neither can it be attained through the efforts of the human spirit.  The human capacity to give and receive love is given by participating in a loving relationship with God who is love (1 John 4:7).  The command to love would be oppressive if it were not for the fact that God gives the human spirit the ability to love in the intimacy of the Spirit.[5] 

            God gives us the capacity to love as God loves.  To see the world as God sees it.  Recently, a colleague introduced me to the poetry of Kathleen Raine (1908-2003).  A child of the manse in Scotland, she lived most of her life in Northumbria, where England crosses over into Scotland.  She was also known for her scholarship on William Blake (1757-1827).  I think she expresses the exquisite wisdom of what Jesus is trying to say here:  “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”[6]

            Try putting this into practice this week.  Imagine you’re looking out upon the world through the lens of love with the hope of really seeing thing or a person—the people you meet, your coworkers, your children, your partner, your husband, wife, the person sitting beside you, strangers, people that bother you, people who scare you, people you hate, disagree with, try it with your pet, a flower, the moon, the sun, even the rain and, yes, even the snow.  That would be how to love even as God loves us, God loves the world.  “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see a thing at all.”

[1] Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (Penguin Classics) (New York:  Penguin Books, 1990 [1940]), 199-200.
[3] On “particularity” in Loder and the “heightening of particularity” in love, see The Transforming Moment, 2nd edition (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 198.
[4] Logic of the Spirit, 267.
[6] I’m grateful to Melanie Starr Costello for introducing me to Raine’s poetry.  This quote is cited in John O’Donohue’s (1956-2008), Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (HarperCollins, 1989), 65.

18 February 2011

Summoned to Life

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 13th February 2011

The cynics might say that Moses’ farewell discourse here in Deuteronomy is merely propaganda.  It’s an odd way to talk about the authority of scripture, I know.    Hear the word “propaganda” today and we think “lies” or half-truths that are trying to dissuade us from some position or idea. Forms of propaganda have been around a long time, although earlier ages might not have used this word.   Wherever we have written records from earlier cultures, we have propaganda.  The earliest evident is from the seventh century BC in Babylon.  Every empire has used it; every type of political system, every economic system has used propaganda. 

Religious organizations are no exception.  It was prevalent during the Reformation, among both Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Christians have used it against Jews and vice versa; Christians and Jews have used it against Muslims and vice versa.  We used it against the Nazis and the Communist Soviet Union, they used it against us.  Scholars have identified more than twenty-five different techniques or strategies of propaganda to explain how it works.  These include:  appeal to prejudice, appeal to fear, appeal to authority, demonizing the enemy, labeling, flag waving, scapegoating, rationalization, making excuses, half-truths, black-and-white thinking (meaning there are only two choices, “You’re either with us or against us.”),  managing the news, obfuscation – keeping everything murky, muddy.  All of which, ironically, we saw going on in Egypt these last 18 days, on both sides, but primarily on the part of the Hosni Mubarek government trying to control the message and the masses.

Propaganda is a form of communication aiming to persuade, convince, and affect people or a community of people around an idea or a cause.  When the word was originally coined, however, it didn’t have a pejorative meaning.  It surfaced in English in the 18th century from the Latin propagare, “to propagate,” and is taken from the name given by Pope Gregory XV gave to a council of cardinals in 1622, Congregatio de Propagatio Fide, “Congregation for Propagating the Faith.”  Propagare is related to propages, meaning “a slip, a cutting of the vine,” an act of pruning, as it were, of preserving what is of the faith and what isn’t.  The fact that we have negative associations with the word says something about how far we have fallen, and continue to fall, as a human race in all the negative ways it is used.  As an agency of persuasion, propaganda has its roots in rhetoric.  Plato (428/427-348/347 BC) used it and Aristotle (384-322 BC), Cicero (106-33 BC) and others.  For them, however, propaganda was used as a way to wake people up to the truth, as a way to appeal to honor and the best intentions of the human spirit.  Today, so much propaganda is used for personal and political and economic gain.  There’s little noble or honorable about it. 

Deuteronomy 30, this farewell speech, is a kind of propaganda—of the ancient variety.  Why do I say this?  First, there’s the clear “either-or” strategy at work here—Israel has a choice, choose life or choose death.  Moses is hoping they choose life.  Second, we should say “Moses,” because Moses never gave this speech.  These aren’t his words.  How do we know this?  Moses could not have written Deuteronomy.  A clue is Deuteronomy 34:5, “Then Moses, servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab.”  That’s quite a trick, to write about one’s own death.  Moses died in about c.1272 BC.  The text we have here, known as Deuteronomy, was written by a group of theologians and historians when Israel was in exile in Babylon.  The First Temple in Jerusalem was sacked in 586 BC by the Assyrians and the people taken off to Babylon.  The speeches of Deuteronomy 29 and 30 come late in the exile period, as Israel tries to come to terms with how the temple could have been destroyed in the first place, as they struggled with the deeper theological question—where was God in their suffering?—and now that it appears they will be allowed to return home, what will their future look like?  These speeches have a pastoral dimension to them; they are given with the hope that the people will repent and change their evil ways.  The Deuteronomist appeals, therefore, to the covenant made between Israel and Yahweh. 

The covenant features prominently throughout Deuteronomy.  This book is calling the people back to their roots, to remember all that Yahweh had done for them in the past.  God had liberated them from the flesh pots of Egypt, God brought them through the wilderness, God gave them a place to live and food to eat.  So what happened?  For the Deuteronomist, the land was devastated, the temple sacked, the people forced into slavery and exile, all because they forgot the source of their life, they abandoned the covenant, they went their own way, they worshipped other gods.  When this text was written, Israel was in exile, their homeland devastated, written for a people demoralized and not really sure where Yahweh could be found in it all.  For how could this have occurred to Yahweh’s people, Israel?

So with brilliant theological imagination the writers of this speech “channel” Moses’ spirit, as it were; this “Moses” calls the people back to their roots, back to the covenant, back to the land.  Although it’s written as if we’re receiving a first-hand account of what happened when Israel first entered the land, the original hearers would have known they were not hearing a literal, historical account, and would have known that it’s the theological claim that matters most here.  And it’s this:  Israel will be given another chance.  The return to Jerusalem from exile will be a kind of new crossing of the River Jordan.  It’s a chance to start again.  So before you begin that trek back across the Jordan—you better get your lives in order.

The choice is theirs.  From the viewpoint of the Deuteronomist, there was only one reason for the destruction of the temple, the devastation of the land, the diaspora of the people. It was their fault.  God was not to be blamed.  God is ever faithful. The covenant stands.  Life and death come through the living out of the covenant.  So it’s up to the people:  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you, today, loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses.  Choose life…”

It’s up to you.  You have to make a choice.  Choose.  Be faithful to the covenant, and you will be blessed.  Reject the covenant, and you will be curse.  Obey the commandments and you live.  That’s the formula.  Follow the formula and everything will be alright.

But can we really believe this?  Is it really this simple?  Is blessing really found in following the commandments, in obedience?  Yes, God’s Law is given that we might live well in the land.  But are we to believe that when adversity and suffering do occur—as they will—that we are always the ones to be blamed?  Is it always our fault?   And, doesn’t such a view take God off the hook; remove God from having any responsibility in the running of human affairs?  It’s a tricky question.  I, personally, don’t think it’s that simple and take issue with the Deuteronomist.  And I’m on good theological and biblical grounds here (so don’t call me a heretic), because whoever wrote the book of Job—which was also written while Israel was in exile—didn’t agree with Deuteronomy either.  Existence is infinitely more complicated than Deuteronomy admits.  Deuteronomy is also the voice of the religious establishment—obey the rules and everything will be alright.  It’s not that simple.  We can all name people we know who, while not perfect and sinless, have sought to live a holy, faithful life, but yet are struck by and struck down by adversity, tragedy, sorrow.  We need to be existentially, theologically honest here.

The wisdom of the Deuteronomist, as least for me, is the call to examine one’s heart.  It’s the psychological wisdom of this text that draws me in.  “But if your heart turns away…”  Before Israel crosses the Jordan, it needs to take time to examine its heart, to go down, to go deep, to fathom the depths of their souls in order to identify the things that make for life and the things that make for death and sorrow.  “Moses” is calling them to a personal examen.  To identify the things that give life and those things that take it away, to examine the ways of the heart—which are, according to Jeremiah, full of deceit and self-deception (17:9). 

 I, personally, don’t believe God wields life to some and death to others, prosperity to some and adversity to others based on behavior.  But I do believe that the nature of our lives, the quality of our lives, the meaning of our lives change when we align ourselves God’s vision for our lives.  To not align ourselves with God’s vision of justice and mercy, to not align our lives with God’s vision of reconciliation and love, to turn our hearts away and go after our own vision, our own selfish pursuits, is in itself a kind of judgment and punishment inflicted upon us, not by God, but by us.  This is what I hear Jesus saying in John 3, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”  For, remember, in him, John says, was “…in him was life and the life was the light of all people (John 1: 4). … Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). 

What blocks or hinders the relationship? What or who is turning your heart away from what is really wants?  What’s giving you life and what’s draining it away?  God loves it when people come alive and are drawn to life.  I think it’s embedded in the human spirit—we saw it this week in Cairo and Alexandria, in the millions of protestors drawn to democracy, yes, but even deeper, deeper than the cry for democracy is the cry for life free from the weight of oppression, the cry for a future.  They were being summoned to life and had the courage to peacefully resist those forces in the world that are determined to snuff it out.  While we must always be careful in saying where God is and isn’t in human affairs, my guess is God is always on the side wherever the human spirit is liberated to choose life and in choosing life is liberated.

What is clear here in the text is that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, is ultimately concerned with life—your life.  What matters most is our life and our life as found in God.  We might say, of course, life matters; there’s nothing profound about that.  But why does it matter?   It matters not just because it is, but because it is holy and what makes life holy is that life itself, existence, being itself, not only participates in God, but is an expression of God’s creativity and love.  God is life and God’s Spirit is the life-giver. 

 Life is to be preserved and hallowed, because it is not ours, but God’s.  And God longs to give life—not just biological life, but meaningful life, abundant life.   That’s why “Moses” is calling the people back, to help them remember their roots, the covenant.  The covenant was given so that the people might live. The covenant was given so that people might remember who is the source of life and that the people might stay close to that source.   The call to “choose life” is a summons to be reconciled to God, to renew the relationship—that’s what covenant means— to reconnect with the source.  The Swiss theologian Hans Hofmann (1923-?) once said, “Life, since it is always relation and relationship to the source of life (whether this relationship is consciously accepted or denied), depends on being rooted in a life which is lasting.”[1]  There can be no life, according to the Deuteronomist, apart from the relationship to the source.  Or, to put it another way, life is only found in relationship to the source of life.  This is basically the core of Jesus’ message, if you think about it, especially in John’s gospel where it is precisely the modeling of his relationship between Jesus and his Father that matters.  It’s the power contained in the relationship that is the way, that is the truth, that is the life (John 14:6).  That’s the gospel message.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.”  Choose life.  For God’s sake and yours, choose life.

[1] Hans Hofmann, “Immortality or Life,”  Theology Today 15 (1958): 242.

02 February 2011


Matthew 5: 1-12

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 30th January 2011

How are you?  What do you say when someone asks you this question?  “Good.”  “Fine.”  “Doing okay.”  “Great! And you?”  Have you ever noticed that sometimes when it’s asked of us, we really don’t take the question seriously.  Sometimes the question is just another way of saying, “Hello.”  We often ask it without really anticipating an answer.  We might say, “How are you?”  But we really don’t want a full and truthful answer; we want to get on with the purpose of the phone call. 

            I remember years ago when I lived in Scotland, we Americans were taken to task by some Scots for the way we ask this question.  It’s not usually part of a personal greeting in the UK.    Walking fast through St. Andrews, no doubt determined to get to some place fast, an American would come across a friend, a Scot, coming toward him in the opposite direction and say to him, “How are you?”—meaning,“Hello!”—but then just keep on walking, never lingering for an answer.  The oncoming Scot, who broke his stride on the sidewalk, turns around to give a reply, but talks to the air because nobody’s there.  The American is half-way down the street.

            How are you?  Ask some Christians this question and their response is often, “Blessed.  I’m blessed.”  I’ve found this to be a common rejoinder in the African-American community.  I’ll pick up the phone, call friends, colleagues and ask, “How are you?” really meaning, “Hi.”  And then hear their reply, “Blessed.  I’m blessed.  And you?  And that’s when I’m caught off guard and feel inadequate as a Christian.  First, the exchange reminds me that words are valuable and that we need to be always wary of anything that empties words of their meaning.  Second, it reminds me just how easy it is to wander from the theological world of the Bible and  how far I’ve allow myself to be defined by a secular perspective that denies the reality of God as a daily, moment-by-moment reality.  “How are you, Ken?”  For me to reply, “Blessed.  I’m blessed.” would be both disingenuous and true.  It’s disingenuous because I usually don’t talk this way.  I don’t tell people that I think I’m blessed.  It can sound self-righteous.  I don’t say it around here in the church and I certainly don’t say it when I go for coffee most mornings at Atwater’s and hear, “Good morning, Ken.  How are you?”

            But it’s true.  It really is.  I’m blessed.  Not because I have my health and I have meaningful employment and have the opportunity to meet incredible people and do amazing things with people for people in need; not because I have good friends and family who love me; not because I have shelter, and food; not because I have invaluable freedoms as an American and live in a marvelous part of the world.  These are all true.  And at many levels they are a kind of blessing.  For the most part these are all accidentals.

            But it’s true.  It really is.  I’m blessed—because Jesus tells me so.  He couldn’t have been more explicit than right here at the beginning of Matthew 5, the famed Sermon on the Mount, which really isn’t a sermon, by the way, and it wasn’t much of a mountain either, it was more like a hill or a rise along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In Matthew’s account, this is where Jesus begins his ministry.  Luke, in contrast, has Jesus preaching in the temple of Capernaum, quoting Isaiah, announcing “liberty to the captives” (Luke 4: 16-30).  Here, Matthew sets Jesus up to be a new Moses, a teacher like Moses who gives from a new mountaintop a new way to live, who teaches his disciples, his students, his followers the wisdom of his schoolroom.  It’s been said that the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, can be viewed as Jesus’ Constitution, all that he values, a summary of the purpose of his mission.  By this analogy, then the Beatitudes, these blessing sayings here, is the Preamble.[1]  To get these well-known verses right shapes the way we hear the rest of the “sermon.”  Fall asleep here at the beginning of the sermon (it’s been known to happen), and you’ll miss the point of all the rest.

            There’s so much jammed into these first few verses of Matthew 5.  Each beatitude warrants our full attention.  But what’s striking about the beatitudes, when viewed as a whole, is their perspective of reality and time.  Each saying begins “makarioi,” Blessed, meaning, “joyful, deeply or exceedingly happy.”  It’ an exuberant statement, “Oh, the blessedness of...”  Joyful, deeply happy are the poor in spirit.  Joyful, deeply happy, oh the blessedness of those who mourn....” Joyful, deeply happy are those who work for peace, and so forth.  But notice the tense.  Jesus isn’t saying that someday we’ll feel blessed, someday we’ll experience this blessing if we work hard at it, someday we’ll know what it’s like to be blessed and deeply happy if we just follow his teachings.  No.  The orientation is not toward some far-off future, but to now, to the present.  Joyful are, exceedingly happy are, blessed are those who seek and thirst for righteousness.

Jesus is saying, follow me, stay close to me, become a disciple or student in my school, and I will show you the way of God, the way of the kingdom.  And the way of the kingdom is not some far-off place we enter when we die, but a present reality, here and now.  And Jesus isn’t saying that if we work at becoming poor in spirit, then we’ll be blessed; or if we mourn, then we’ll be blessed, if we work for peace, we will be blessed.  There’s nothing conditional about this, no if-then. So often the Sermon on the Mount in general and the beatitudes in particular have been read as primarily ethical statements.  Jesus is not really concerned about ethics here.  He’s not providing a new ethical system and he isn’t asking us to live by it or live up to it.  He’s not providing a list of requirements or precepts. [2] It’s not even a code of behavior for us.  Because there’s no way any one can bring about the reality that Jesus is talking about here.  No one.  We don’t have it in us.

Actually, it’s not about us—it has nothing to do with us.  It’s all about God, for Jesus. God is the unexpected subject of the action.[3]  When we align our vision with God’s vision, watch for how we see the world then changes.   When we align our action with what God is doing in the world, watch for how what we seek to do in the world then changes.  When we align our lives with God’s life, watch for how the meaning of our lives then change — it’s nothing that we do, but it’s what is given to us by God when we see ourselves and the world through the perspective of the goals of God’s kingdom.  Aligning ourselves with the Kingdom causes a new orientation of thought and action and yields a new spirit and a new stake in life.  There’s a new source of joy, a new source of happiness, of deep blessedness that comes. This doesn’t mean we’ll all walk around like one of those yellow smiling faces all the time.   It doesn’t mean that life will be easy.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t have trials and tribulations.  It might even mean that we are persecuted for our belief, mocked for our faith, mocked for being peacemakers.  Yet even in the mocking, the suffering, the mourning, the struggle of existence we will experience God’s blessedness, because we will discover something of God in those moments.  All of these experiences may be viewed as providing a new frame of reference, the larger context of God’s kingdom.  There is a different kind of happiness, joy, blessedness that comes when our lives are in relationship with God. 

            And when we are in a relationship with God, Jesus tells us—which is what we were created for—the blessing that Jesus describes here is not reserved for a later time, but is experienced, is given to us now.  Yes, right now we are blessed.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was right — oh, that we would know this now.  “All are called to be what in the reality of God they are already.”[4]  Already.  To be in Christ, to be in relationship with God is to be blessed now—we are loved, now; we are forgiven, now; we are reconciled to God, now;  we are blessed with every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), now.  And yet, there’s a part in all of us (call it sin) that can’t quite believe all of this to be true, that it’s too good to be true, that’s it’s too simple.  Maybe it’s too good not to be true.   There’s a part of us that’s afraid to really trust this to be true, a reluctance “to accept our acceptance,” to claim our forgiveness, to claim God’s grace, to know we are loved.[5] What if, when asked, “How are you?” we have the courage to claim, “I’m blessed” and really know it and mean it and struggle every day to live into it?

Jesus is always trying to get us to see the world, see ourselves, see God in a different way.  To help us see what we’ve been missing, to reorient our view of reality and time.  To feel empowered to act, to live, to love in a new way because this is true—by God’s grace we are blessed.  This is the good news of the kingdom.   Instead of trying to live our lives seeking blessedness, what if we claimed it to be true already, and then tried to live into the meaning of it, to embody it?

What is true for an individual is equally true for the reality of a church—imagine what a church will look like when it serves out of the capacity of what it knows to be true, instead of worrying about what it does not know and cannot know, to affirm what it has instead of focusing on what it might lack (as if we actually lack anything we need to be faithful).  As you read over this morning the reports from our boards and committees for the Annual Congregational meeting, when you look at the financial summary for 2010 and the budget for 2011, when you look at the long list of all our mission giving, when you consider all the ministries of this church, how we care for one another and seek to love one another and worship together, I hope you can see just how much has indeed already been given to us by God’s grace, to see something of God’s blessedness among us.  Claim the reality.  Imagine how perspectives of ministry can change the more we claim what God has already done for us. 

Indeed, what if in our mission, in our ministry, in our worship, in the way we share our resources, the way we love one another and invite others to fellowship with us, the way we seek to grow into the vision God has given us, we claim all the more what we in fact already are by virtue of God’s grace and unfathomable goodness:  that we are blessed, now.   

So what if someone asked you while you were having your coffee at Atwater’s or getting a slice at Peace A Pizza in town, how is Catonsville Presbyterian Church?  What’s it like there?  Who are you?  What would be your answer?  What if someone asked you right now, at this moment?  How are you, Catonsville Presbyterian Church?  What would you say?  Blessed.  We are blessed.  Unbelievably blessed.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 46.
[2] Long, 45-51.  Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 61.  “The sermon is not a heroic ethic.  It is the constitution of a people.  You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another. …The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.  To be saved is to be so gathered.” (61).
[3]Long, 46-48.
[4] “All are called to be what in the reality of God they are already.  The disciples are called blessed because they have obeyed the call of Jesus, and the people as a whole because they are heirs of the promise.”  The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 119.
[5] Cf. Paul Tillich’s (1886-1965) sermon, “You Are Accepted,” in Shaking the Foundations (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 153-163).  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!  If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before.  But everything is transformed.  In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.  And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.” (162). Italics in the text.